Judy, it is such a pleasure to have you with us today on Author Interview Friday. Tell us a little about yourself.
Originally from downstate Illinois, I now live in rural Virginia, inspired by the history that surrounds me. I have six grown children, nine grands and great grands, and a growing bunch of furry grandchildren. I have been writing seriously most of my adult life, first as a school administrator in charge of producing newsletters, enrichment class lessons and the flurry of papers all of you parents receive from your child‘s school daily.
Under contract to the Department of Defense in the Pentagon, I wrote proposals and training, testing and technical support materials. Now retired, I write for pleasure alone drawing on a background of many classes, extensive reading, a love of history and the English language, working in the theater and as an historic house docent. These days I can indulge full-time in writing short stories, poetry, and novels.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
Around the age of ten. I wrote a play about a band of gypsies gallivanting around a forest – kind of a cross between Carmen and Robin Hood. My very best 4th grade girl friends and I produced it for our parents to thunderous applause. I was hooked and have been writing ever since.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I find inspiration everywhere. For instance, the inspiration for my recently published first novel was the book, Born Fighting, How the Scotch Irish Shaped America, by the former Senator from Virginia, James Webb. I also love the story of the founding of America, and my own trip to Scotland where I unexpectedly discovered that my family name, Allen, has Scottish roots.
Primarily, when I sit down to write, I draw on my pool of distilled experience: everything from people I have known to places I have been to achievements and failures, pleasures and pain. The memory bank can be a strange place to visit, but so much of what I dredge up from there often lands on the page – a fit of laughter, a painful affair, the scent of a long desiccated sprig of lavender plucked from a childhood garden, all woven together with fragments of truth and wild sprints of imagination. And that is why I write. It is such an adventure.
Do you have a background in writing or take any special writing courses that helped you along the way?
I like to say I have a PhD in Living – a little conceit of mine, as much like my secretly adopted mentor, John Steinbeck, I have never completed a degree program, but if experience has anything to do with putting words on paper, I’ve probably done it or taken a class in it. But the daily practice of writing to make a living has been the best education. I have written newsletters, white papers, administrative, technical and financial reports, government proposals, user guides and training plans, software test plans, meeting minutes – facts, protocols, standards. All wonderful training for learning how to organize thoughts, write succinctly, and deliver an exact message. My relief from this routine was reading the best fiction I could get my hands on, working evenings in the theater and as a docent at the historic house of James Madison, Montpelier.
How long did it take you to publish your first manuscript?
From first ‘bee in the bonnet’ to actual publication of my first novel, The Secret Diary of Ewan Macrae, took about eight years of fits and starts, several iterations of the story, and at least two years of rewrites.
Why did you choose to go the self-publishing Indie route in lieu of traditional publication? What were the deciding factors to choosing your publisher? Would you recommend that same Indie publisher to a colleague?
After hearing Kathryn Stockett’s story of having her novel, The Help, rejected by 60 literary agents, I decided I was getting too old to go through that ordeal and chose to self-publish. It has become an accepted and much more respected way to go than in the past.
I investigated several independent publishing houses, but after attending a seminar run by a fellow writer, I published through Amazon’s Create Space. I am a bit of a technical dunce, but after an initial learning curve, found the process easy, and am quite pleased with the final products: a print-on-demand quality paperback and a Kindle version. And I might add – at no cost.
Do you always write in the same POV or narrative or do you switch it up in different stories?
Interestingly enough, The Secret Diary of Ewan Macrae is written in three POV’s – that of the two contemporary main characters living in 1946, and of the 1746 writer of the titular diary.
With part of the story taking place in the 1700’s, I would guess your story would fit under Historical fiction. Did you do a lot of research to make sure the scenes fit the era as far as language, clothes, mannerisms? How closely do you stick to history to make sure it is correct? What other challenges do you face when writing in a different era?
My novel should probably be listed first as Historical Fiction with sub-genres (if there is such an animal) of mystery, literary fiction, family, love, and with a stretch of the parameters, ‘coming of age’ because the primary character, Margaret is a naïve 21 year old with as much ‘street sense’ as a 12 year old.
However, the background is American History. I wanted to explore life’s experiences during two eras not only very different from today but were, in my opinion, incubation periods for the country we have today: 1746, when waves of immigrants were arriving in America just as it is poised to launch the war from which it grew into a fledgling power; and 1946, when the United States, victorious in World War II, emerged as a world power.
I have tried to make the historical references, locations and culture as authentic as possible by doing extensive research on both eras. It was necessary to verify all of the items you mention as well as current events, laws, economics, antiques, plant life, food – I could go on and on but I think you get the point. Then I began on research of Scottish independence, emigration, indenture, migration, frontier life and finally Cherokee culture. It was great fun.
What does “finding your Voice” mean to you and how did you find yours?
My novel is strong on character development and in order to accomplish that I needed to ‘befriend’ my characters. Strange as it may sound, they became as familiar to me as family. I found I could think like each one, talk like each one, and each one is very different. The process started as I wrote back stories for the two main characters, Margaret and Phil. Where were they born, what were their family and childhood experiences, their coming of age, education, conflicts, and the problem or event that brought them to my novel. My “Voice” actually became theirs.
It is not enough to write a book and wait for the money to start rolling in. What marketing techniques do you implement to increase your sales?
Marketing is not my strong point. I know that a good platform is important: social media, website, blogs, etc. And I am working on these. But as a neophyte, I find my best results to date have come from personal appearances, talks and book fairs.
As my website is in the design stages, please find The Secret Diary of Ewan Macrae on Amazon at the link below: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=diary+ewan+macrae
Are you a pantser or a planner?
I have a blanket plan and usually an ending. Getting from the beginning to that end, I am a pantser. Also I have experienced the phenomena where my characters dictate what they want to do. When I follow their lead, the results are often better that what I had planned.
What advice would you give to new writers just getting started with their first manuscript?
Write, write, write. Let the story flow. Get involved in a good critique group that understands your genre and listen to their criticism – it is good food for thought. You can take it or leave it, but do consider it. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
What is the premise of your novel we are promoting today?
The Secret Diary of Ewan Macrae is a story of self discovery and America’s early years told through the experiences of Margaret Macrae, a naïve North Carolina small town girl trying to survive on her own and Phil Domin, a jaded New York City writer running from the law. Together they search for the answers to a mystery, uncover a conspiracy, and fall in love. A source of strength and inspiration for them both is the 200 year old diary written by Margaret’s Scottish ancestor who fled to America in 1746. The accounts, spanning two centuries have amazing parallels.
Thank you Judy. Your book sounds intriguing. I can’t wait to read it. Can you share a few paragraphs to wet our appetite?
Shafts of light leaked from the edges of the drawn shades of Marlin’s Cafe. Thinking these security lights, Margaret piled the cookie tins against the door when, startled – she toppled into a snow drift – Marlin opened the door. “What’s all the racket out here? Well, look who it ain’t. Come on in, gal, ya look like a block o’ ice. What in the world are ya bringin’ me?”
“Cookies,” said Margaret, her teeth chattering, “I made so many, I thought maybe you could use them.”
Marlin pulled the lid from one of the tins. “Lawdy, lawdy, will ya smell that – cinnamon and cloves.” She opened another tin, “Good gracious, these’re chocolate and nuts.” A third tin revealed, “lemon, just like they’re fresh from the tree.” On and on, “Mincemeat, almond, peppermint sprinkles, Christmas trees and stars. Gal, you are really somethin’. You musta used yer entire month’s sugar ration coupons.
“Come on in here. I am gonna fix you a big old cuppa hot cocoa. Take the chill outa your bones. Phil, will you come see what just dropped in.”
Out from the kitchen, wearing a long white apron, wiping his hands on a greasy towel, came Phil Domin. Another surprise.
“I been here all day,” said Marlin. “Gettin’ ready for the big Christmas day crowd. Bakin’ hams and turkeys. Can ya smell ‘em? Phil stopped by for coffee on his way home.
“Say, we got nothing else to do tonight. My money says you’re in the same boat. How ‘bout stayin’ and helpin’ with the cookin’?”
Margaret nodded – an uninvited impulse. The day was full of them. The warmth of the room – perhaps it was the company – melted the cold from her body and the usual shyness from her heart. Cocoa was brewed, three cups poured, a plate of cookies shared, stories of culinary disasters, remembered snowball fights, embarrassing moments, and the pageant chaos that, doubling over in laughter at the telling, they dubbed, the Christmas Riot of ’46.
Marlin rose from the table. “Y’all stay put. Time to check on the turkeys; take out the hams. We can sneak a bit for us to lay on some supper. If one of you knows how, you might throw together a little punch. And put on some music, Maggie, honey. It’s just plain dark outside. You best plan to stay the night with me.”
Margaret didn’t protest, but stacked the player with records and switched it on. Phil swirled together in a big glass snifter, a potent mixture of orange juice and champagne with a shot of Cointreau, a dash of sugar.
“Here, taste this.” He handed Margaret a tiny glass. She sipped the bubbly liquid and her nose began to run. It was her first taste of alcohol, titillating and wonderful.
Marlin returned carrying plates of turkey, ham and crusty bread, spicy apples, brandied pudding, ripened cheese and walnuts. They feasted and drank and laughed some more.
The café was warm and filled with the smells of cooking: cinnamon and nutmeg, pineapple and cloves, rosemary and sage. Marlin lit the strings of tiny white lights that hung round the windows, the red, blue and green ones on the tree that sat in the corner. Phil dimmed the café lights. The strains of White Christmas drifted from the record player. Snow began to fall.
With one hand at her back, Phil lifted Margaret from her chair and drew her close. As his lips brushed her cheek, she warmed with the feeling of falling into white clouds of soft cotton and silk, and smooth as breezes blowing through the trees, they moved as one to the enchantment of the song.
Who knew Christmas could be such a magical time? Who knew a grieving girl could grow into a woman overnight? Who guessed a cynical old New Yorker and a shy naïve mountain girl could fall in love?
“I did,” smiled Marlin. “I did.”